Darkness in a Theater

by Emily Colson

This is a guest post by my friend, Emily Colson. After reading the post on her blog, I asked her if we could also post it here.
—Colleen

We came to see a movie. But I never imagined that we would become the entertainment.

Patty and I found our pre-assigned seats and sunk into the plush leather, with Max sandwiched between us. Despite the exorbitant ticket price, this posh new cinema was completely full. I studied those around us searching for a smile, which is the gold star sticker of acceptance.

But no one seemed to notice Max.

Credit/Copyright Attribution: isak55/Shutterstock

Credit/Copyright Attribution: isak55/Shutterstock

As we sat waiting for the film, I marveled that we could be part of this audience, sitting like everyone else enjoying Christmas with their families. We became something bigger than just us; we were a school of fish moving together in unity, gliding through the deep blue. Max’s eyes darted around the room, his pupils like black pools as the lights dimmed.

“Don’t worry if Max gets anxious in the beginning of the movie,” I whispered to my step-mom Patty. “He needs a few minutes to adjust, and then he loves it.” I felt a little rush of pride come over me, with a desperate hope that it would actually work. Sitting at the movies is one of our hard-earned victories. But after 23 years, I know that life with autism is predictably unpredictable. I clutched my bag under my arm, with Max’s teddy bear peeking out of the top just like the Hollywood starlets carry their Chihuahuas.

The first preview started with eardrum-breaking volume. “I want to go home!” Max shrieked as he folded over his ears.

I leaned in quickly, knowing the drill. “It’s okay, Max. Our movie will start in a minute. This will stop.” Just as Max was about to completely unravel, our great green friend appeared like an angel on the screen, but with the potential for warts. It was Kermit the Frog, as big as a house. Max’s face relaxed, “The Muppet Movie!” Max cried out in a jubilant voice that carried unfortunately well with the fine acoustics of the theater. “And Fozzy Bear!” Max laughed nearly slapping his knee. It was apparent that, despite their best efforts, these felt puppets were not bringing joy to the rest of the audience. I leaned into Max and pointed to our movie theater rules. “Whisper voice,” I reminded him.

Finally, our feature started, and once again the change startled Max. “I want to go home!” His voice cracked across the silent theater.

But he was quickly drowned out.

“Are you going to make him be quiet?” The older woman next to Patty exploded with aggravation.

Patty leaned toward her and explained, “He is autistic and . . .”

“I know he is,” the woman shot back as she lunged forward and pounded on her chest. “But why should the rest of us have to suffer.”

“If you don’t make him be quiet,” her husband shouted, “I’m calling the manager!”

I desperately needed an oxygen mask to drop from the ceiling. I couldn’t breathe. There in 3-D surround sound, my own horror movie began to play.

I threw my hand up toward them in a stop motion. It works for policemen. And I desperately, achingly, wanted it to stop. “Okay. Okay,” I said. “Just give us a minute.” It takes both great finesse and a forklift for Max to leave quickly. My heart leapt into my throat as if it were trying to make an escape before the rest of us. At another time I might have defended our right to be there, but I could hear a strange rumbling of underground thunder. After a minute of dust-flinging commotion, Max stood up beside me, with Patty soon to follow.

And the thunder grew louder.

It was applause for our exit. It was the sound of an angry mob chasing us away with their jeers and taunts.

“And don’t come back,” I heard as we slowly made our way down the stairs in the dark.

I tried to block Max from the view of the crowd, my every step labored, detached, brittle. I wanted to throw my arms around Max to remind him, and everyone else, of just how deeply he is loved. But I couldn’t make my arms work. As we neared the exit, passing center stage, I heard a voice from the back of the theater. It was a man shouting over the thunder of the crowd like a crack of lightning.

“He’s retarded.”

I lost all bearings. I even lost track of watching Max. I stopped and turned toward the sea of faces lit up by the screen behind me. They were colorless, floating, with their little fish eyes watching our every move. The movie must have been showing on top of my silhouette. I don’t know if they could see my hand clutching my heart, my chest heaving for a breath. I tried to squeak something out, but a boa constrictor had wrapped itself around my throat. I had to find some kind of answer to such cruelty, some memorable response to wash this away.

“There is a lesson here,” I began as I forced my tiny voice forward fearing the movie sound track would suddenly drown me out. “A lesson that is so much more important than anything you will learn from this movie.”

I turned back toward the exit, my arms and legs stiff like metal rods. But just as we were about to walk out, the voice from the back of the room struck again.

“Merry Christmas!” he called to us sarcastically. It was a kick in the back on our way out the door, a final deathblow meant for purely perverse entertainment.

I looked back up at the crowd once more. The little girl in me wanted to storm up those stairs and throw over the Monopoly board. Fortunately, the grown-up part of me was numb. Plus, I knew I was outnumbered. Just minutes ago, I was a card-carrying member of this audience. And sadly, despite everything that would speak to the contrary, despite my desperate desire for it to be untrue, I knew I still was. I shuddered at the truth of it, at the vile potential of every human heart. Including my own. And then came the strangest sense of clarity, the tiniest bit of perfect peace.

Christmas.

It was a nudge of truth from the Holy Spirit. Even as I share this story with you days later, I feel it. Christmas . . . when God sent His only Son into the angry lynch mob of the world that groans with self-serving demands and cruelty and hate, to bring us light in our darkness. To bring us healing for our utterly disabled souls. To save us from ourselves—something we cannot do. I couldn’t wait to get my son out of there. But Christmas . . . Christmas is when God, in His lavish love for us, chose to send His only Son right into this carnage. Christmas is God’s answer to the evil in every human heart.

We stood just a step from the theater exit, my chance for the last word. With my hand still clutching my chest, I scraped up every shred of kindness I could pull together in my fragile splintered self and breathed words of hope back to the audience, and to myself.

“Merry Christmas,” I whispered.

And the words spilled around us like a little pool of light.

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1:4–5 (NIV)

Copyright © 2014 by Emily Colson. Used by permission.

Question: Have you ever had an experience like the darkness in this theater? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

  • Gael Tino

    Yes, we have had experiences like this….Only ONE time in the 32 yrs. of our daughter’s Lennox-Gastalt syndrome have I ever had a stranger be kind.
    We were in a department store, I was in the check out line when a “drop attack” seizure happened. Out of nowhere came a really tall guy who scopped Ange up, and asked here I wanted her taken. I was so shocked, I could barely reply “to the car”.
    Another time at a wedding that I was in, a lady said Ange should be “put away”….
    What gives people the right to say such mean things? I’d like to be able to say that people are basically good, but they are not, they are selfish, mean spirited, and downright evil!
    Thats my story, and I’m stickin to it… 🙂

    • Gael,
      I have to say, your honesty is so refreshing…I loved the end “that’s my story and I’m stickin to it!”. I did laugh out loud. And also, I had to think, the very same spirit in others is in me which is why Christ came to die. It’s such a humbling journey isn’t it. Thanks so much for your comment and your absolute honesty! Have a wonderful afternoon! Colleen

    • Gael, I just wrote an update to Emily’s experience…such great news. I hope we connect again sometime soon. Colleen

  • Linette Montgomery

    We have endured stares, and asked the question “What’s his deal?” From an educator no less, but nothing to the extent you experienced in this movie theater.
    I cried when I read this, as the mother of an autistic son my heart goes out to you.

    Thank you for sharing this and after such a horrific experience ending it with a powerful message of hope. God Bless you for sharing this with us.

    • Linette, Oh my… I forwarded this to Emily. I am so very sorry; and yet I think how many times did people just stare at Jesus in unbelief or disgust or whatever. He gets our struggles and our pain. You are a wonderful mom! Hope you are having a good day today! Colleen

  • JavaJossie

    Yes I have had a similar experience. I have to say reading your story brought it all right back to the surface…I walked away defeated and embittered. Thank you for drawing the parallel to Christ’s crucifixion….that has brought healing to my heart. Our movie disaster happened on Christmas as well. My husband has Huntington’s Disease, a central nervous system disorder that is somewhat like having Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s combined.
    My husband was more comfortable standing and was doing so at the side of
    the theater when the manager came in and asked us to leave because my husband
    was “scaring people with his movement” . Our whole family was there including another person with HD who was unable to control what she was feeling and saying…&^$%@^&*)(*&…. it blew up like a big fire. I felt so torn…trying to set an example for our son with Aspergers on how to manage a situation like this, trying to help my other family member calm down, and trying to defend my husband all at the same time. I was so hurt that I could not speak and so embarrassed by the other family member that I just wanted to leave as quickly as we could. Then the
    anger set in – with myself for not knowing what to say, and with the establishment for discriminating against our family on Christmas day. Needless to say we have never gone back to that theater and I have told everyone I know about how they treated us. You know looking back on this I don’t know if anyone would have had the right words to say to correct the situation, it is so hard being the parent and spouse of a person with a disability, the battles are endless…it is exhausting and yet I do find meaning and feel God presence in ways I never would have if it weren’t for my guys…thank you for helping me see even more value in our experience…you were much more gracious than I have been.

    • JavaJossie,
      My heart just breaks for you and your family. I am so very sorry for what you have endured and your right…no one has words for these kind of shocking experiences. My dear friend Emily is filled with God’s grace as I told her I wouldn’t have been so kind either but God provided. When Emily first posted this, it went viral…so, so many were reached. And I have to think that some of the greatest changes and inventions were created from hurt or need. There does need to be change; one that only God can bring through those who have been hurt but have surrendered to His leading. While I have bitterness struggles as well, I have begun practicing forgiveness and God is changing my heart. As a great friend of mine has said, “Forgiveness is letting go of a different or better past”. In doing so, our souls are changed. Christ could have come back so bitter, so entitled, shaking his finger at all those who thought they could kill him and the eternal message of truth. Instead, his words were “forgive them, for they know not what they do”…even as he felt abandoned from his father, God, He trusted the truth which promises to set us free. I’m with you in this; I don’t have it all put together but like you, desire to be transformed through our inevitable trials. May God Almighty give you grace, hope, truth, and a strength that can only come from Him. Thank you so much for you honesty! I hope we stay connected as I want to join you in the journey…we can’t do it alone. You are one strong person that God is going to use in magnificent ways…surrender and acceptance are key to the process. Praying for healing and hope in your life. Let’s stay in touch! Colleen

    • Java, as I re read your comment, I wanted to follow up with some fantastic news. Emily’s church gathered a whole group of people and they rented a theater and got to watch an entire movie in delight! How great is that! Just thought you would get a smile over it. Have a great weekend. Colleen

      • JavaJossie

        Wow – that is GREAT!!!! What a way to heal – praise God!!!

        • It was such a healing experience for their family….my hope and prayer is that you will find a community with the same values. It’s has been used in amazing ways! Let me know what you find out. Colleen
          Colleen Swindoll-Thompson